On October 18, 2011 NTSB chair Deborah Hersman testified before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation on pipeline safety legislation. Her comments provide a clear blueprint for what needs to be done to ensure safe delivery of natural gas. Click here to read them.
The five-member National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) held its final hearing Tuesday, August 30, 2011 at its headquarters in Washington, D.C. where it unanimously voted to adopted the staff report that put the blame for the deadly San Bruno pipeline rupture squarely on the shoulders of PG&E. The board also chastised the California Public Utilities Commission and the Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration for lack of diligent oversight which fostered an environment where PG&E engaged in poor operational practices without federal sanctions.
The NTSB had been investigating the San Bruno disaster since its team arrived on the scene on September 10, 2011.
The final report will be released in late September, 2011. The NTSB issued 39 safety recommendations over the course of the investigation. The NTSB will hold a briefing on the final report on Thursday, September 1, 2011 at 1:30 p.m. in Room 138 of the Dirksen Building, Washington D.C. And two weeks or so after the hearing, the NTSB will send detailed letters to each of the parties to the investigation (PG&E, the CPUC and the City of San Bruno). These letters, which typically run dozens of pages, will spell out what action the NTSB believes the affected party should take based on its investigative findings.
The most significant recommendation, one fully supported by Rep. Speier, calls for the end of the federal rules that have allowed pipelines installed prior to 1970 to be operated without testing documentation that would support the pipeline’s Maximum Allowable Operation Pressure (MAOP). California rules provided an exemption for pipelines installed prior to 1961. After the 2010 rupture the CPUC ordered PG&E to provide testing documentation for all its pipelines. Rep. Speier will pursue an elimination of the “pipeline grandfather clause” through legislation in Congress
The pipeline known as Segment 180 that ruptured on September 9, 2010 in San Bruno was installed in 1956. The NTSB said the pipe was in such poor condition when installed that the faulty welds would have been visible to the naked eye. The pipeline was never pressure tested and if it had been, according to the NTSB, it would have failed.
On August 26, 2011 PG&E submitted to the CPUC its plan to overhaul its entire natural gas delivery system by instituting new safety practices and by testing, repairing and replacing old pipelines. PG&E is asking the CPUC to approve the plan and its cost of $2.2 billion—90 percent of the costs would be paid by consumers. Rep. Speier contends that a large portion of the costs should come from PG&E shareholders. She will ask the CPUC to scrutinize PG&E’s proposal so that consumers do not pay for work that PG&E should have done prior to the rupture, but did not choosing, instead, to increase profits to shareholders.
Congresswoman Speier has asked the CPUC to incorporate the NTSB findings into the rulemaking process and to require PG&E to adjust its structural integrity plan to reflect the findings of the NTSB.
Rep. Speier encourages comments on pipeline safety issues. Dozens of scientists and engineers in the Bay Area have provided her with invaluable insights on how to ensure that there are no more pipeline disasters. Her lead staffer on this issue is Richard Steffen who may be reached at 650-342-0300 or at email@example.com. You are encouraged to contact us with your insights and/or concerns. Two citizens have provided information to Congresswoman Speier that subsequently was used by the NTSB in its investigation.
Recent Pipeline Safety News
Congress is currently sifting through various proposals to improve regulation of natural gas transmission and distribution lines. Focus is on placement of remote automatic shutoff valves, inspection techniques and penalties for non-compliance. There remains a possibility that a bill could be approved by the end of the year although details on the contents of the measure are still not firm.
Earlier this year Rep. Speier introduced sweeping legislation to improve natural gas pipeline safety in the U.S. She has a second draft measure that contains provisions that might be placed in other bills moving through the House and the Senate.
On April 1, 2011 Rep. Speier presented the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) with 14 proposals that she said would vastly improve the state’s oversight of natural gas pipeline operators and the safe operation of pipelines. The proposals, contained in a letter, were adopted for discussion by the CPUC which will issue final rules for pipeline operations later this year.
On May 19, 2011 the Secretary of the Department of Transportation Ray LaHood toured the San Bruno rupture site at Rep. Speier’s request. He directs the agency that oversees the Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) which regulates the nation’s pipeline operators. Secretary LaHood pledged to raise the bar on pipeline safety and to work Rep. Speier in developing rules for greater pipeline safety.
In August PHMSA released “questions” to be considered in the proposing of 14 specific rules changes affecting natural gas operations. After the commentary period, there is a budgetary review followed by the release of proposed rules that will again be open to comment. The actual rules are not expected to become final until 2013. Rep. Speier intends to meet with Secretary LaHood to “beef up” the proposals which she says don’t go far enough to protect consumers.
On June 7, 2011 Rep. Speier provided Chairwoman Deborah Hersman and the CPUC with memos from a former PG&E employee who had managed pipeline documents for the utility. The memos from 1992 and 1993 suggest that PG&E was not keeping accurate, up-to-date records. The CPUC posted the memos on its website while the memo writer has since been interviewed by parties to the NTSB investigation.
On June 8, 2011 Debra Hersman, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) toured the San Bruno rupture site at Rep. Speier’s request. The NTSB is the federal agency that is investigating the cause of the PG&E natural gas explosion. Chairwoman Hersman and board member Mark Rosekind met with survivors of the blast and talked with city officials during the tour. Rosekind was raised in San Bruno.